The contribution of musical theory to an ancient Chinese concept of the Universe

Alice Williamson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In early Chinese thought music and music-related concepts formed key elements to the way in which the cosmos was envisaged and written about. This paper unfolds how passages of late Zhou and early Han documents such as the Lushi Chunqiu, Huainanzi, Xunzi and Yue ii cross over, in their implied symbolic concepts and use of language, between musical theory and cosmology from the correlation of positions of stars with musical tones, to the use of cosmological symbols to describe music, and vice versa. Why was there this cross over? Did this use of music provide a "more complete" picture of the Universe for the Chinese, or were there other, political reasons behind it? The paper expands on these key questions through analysis of the texts, and goes on to ask whether this research into, and material of ancient China can shed any light on the modern, western view of interdisciplinarity between sciences and the arts. In this paper I discuss the use of ancient Chinese musical theory within their concept of the cosmos and its systems and processes, covering both the mathematics of musical harmonics as well as the way in which early Chinese scholars wrote about music and the universe. I refer here to four key ancient texts from my period: The.EVA Liishi Chunqiu; the writings of (sic) Xunzi; the (sic)Yue Ji (Record of Music); and the (sic) Huainanzi. After this discussion I consider why these crossovers existed, and more generally, whether such correlative cosmology from the ancient period could inform us today.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)167-173
JournalAstronomy and Civilization in the New Enlightenment
Publication statusPublished - 2011


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